For many Crees, the spring thaw is associated with warmer weather and the pleasures of goose break. For the residents of Kashechewan First Nation however, the change of season is a time of destructive flooding and a grim annual evacuation.
In late April, the community of 1500 Crees was evacuated for the third consecutive year after ice breakup caused the nearby Albany River to rise. Some residents are now trickling back into the community, but many are asking why the federal government isn’t addressing the annual flood problem.
“We had an agreement signed with the federal government in 2005 to move the community to higher ground,” said Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for the region. “Then the Conservatives came into power and walked away from the agreement in 2007. And here we are, 10 years later and the community is still facing the same problem.”
Angus says the original agreement would have moved Kashechewan to higher ground in one of five areas on the band’s territory. The Conservatives however, wanted to move the community outside Timmins, 450 km south of its current location. Residents refused such a drastic exodus from their traditional territory.
When the Conservatives reneged on the deal in 2007, they promised to repair the dike wall intended to protect the community from the powerful Albany River. Angus says the $15 million that has since been spent on the dike is dangerously inadequate. A recent engineering report supports that view.
Experts with engineering firm Hatch Ltd. recently completed a report titled Assessment of Dam Safety Risks and Dam Safety Management Requirements for the Kashechewan Ring Dike. It says the deteriorating condition of the dike protecting Kashechewan puts community members at “intolerable risk”.
“This is a real warning that the community simply cannot be left where it is on the flood plain,” said Angus. “One year that dike wall could give way. And if it does, we’ll have a very serious catastrophe on our hands.”
The Kashechewan evacuations are currently costing the federal government close to $20 million annually. But for some members of the community, the real cost of the floods isn’t monetary.
Flood damage to many homes has forced almost 400 people out of the community until their houses can be repaired. Mould growth from moisture and sewage overflow has made an already difficult housing situation in Kashechewan even worse. Today, an entire neighbourhood of the community remains empty. Most of the families who once lived there have been living for over a year in temporary accommodations in Kapuskasing, Ontario.
“People are extremely frustrated,” said Angus. “They’re asking why the community isn’t just being moved to higher ground.”
For those lucky enough to be making their way home this spring, the challenges continue.
“The evacuation taking place during goose break season means it interrupts peoples’ opportunity to provide food for their families in the coming year,” Angus observed. “It’s emotionally traumatic, culturally disruptive and has an enormous emotional impact on the people of Kashechewan.”